Basques Seek Peaceful Way to Independence

During four decades of violence, the Basque separatist group ETA claimed to be fighting for the Basque people's right to self-determination. But the group ignored the fact that most Basques rejected terrorism as a means to achieve that goal. Now that ETA has declared a permanent cease-fire, Basques are more likely to support the group's aim of Basque independence. Jerome Socolovsky reports.

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For several hours the Basque region of northern Spain has officially been at peace. A cease-fire declared by the armed Basque separatist group ETA, went into effect at midnight Spanish time. ETA is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union and it's killed more than 800 people in its quest for Basque independence. Basques themselves are wondering what it will take to make this peace last. Jerome SOCOLOVKSY reports from the Basque port city of Bilbao.

(Soundbite of crowd)

JEROME SOCOLOVKSY reporting:

The Edunia(ph) Bar is one of the many elegant art-deco cafes in central Bilbao. People are sipping coffee around a big, round, wooden counter and on benches under the stained-glass windows. For Monci Garcia(ph) and her colleague, the impact of ETA cease-fire is still sinking in.

Ms. MONCI GARCIA (Resident, Bilbao, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVKSY: ETA already existed when we were born. It's part of our lives now, she says. It should go now once and for all. That's at least what we're hoping. It's been a long time since Basques were so full of hope. For almost four decades this tiny sliver of northern Spain, home to around two million people, has been plagued by car bombs, shootings and Intifada-like street violence.

But despite at least a dozen truces that ETA has declared and subsequently revoked over the years, Chema Gonzalez(ph) thinks this one just might work.

Mr. CHEMA GONZALEZ (Resident, Bilbao, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVKSY: We think this is the beginning of something, he says. It may not happen right away, but at least in a year or two it could be resolved. Many Basques are encouraged that ETA actually said the word permanent, an adjective it has never used before to describe a cease-fire. But like many people here in the Basque country, Alberto Roteta Zabal(ph) expects that ETA will demand a price for peace.

Mr. ALBERTO ROTETA ZABAL (Resident, Bilbao, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVKSY: Of course, there's going to have to be a process of negotiations between ETA and the government on some very specific issues like prisoners, he says. ETA's outlawed political wing has already hinted that it wants amnesties for around 500 jailed ETA members and a halt to the current prosecutions of suspected sympathizers of the group.

But ETA's ultimate goal is independence for the three Basque provinces of northern Spain as well as a slice of territory in southwestern France where Basque is also spoken. This has been rejected by both Spain and France.

(Soundbite of music)

SOCOLOVKSY: At another bar across the river in a narrow alley of Bilbao's old city, posters of jailed ETA members plaster the walls. Mekkel Irregy(ph) sits at the bar reading a pro-independence newspaper. He says Madrid should at least allow a referendum on self-determination.

Mr. MEKKEL IRREGY (Resident, Bilbao, Spain): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVKSY: Of course that will be the key, he says. The foundation of the whole conflict is the right that we Basques have to be a free people under tutelage to no state. But it's far from certain that Spain's socialist government under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapetero is willing to allow a referendum.

Zapetero has been open to increasing autonomy for Spain's 17 regions, but to resolve the Basque conflict he needs the support of the political right. The leader of the conservative Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, has warned that any political concession now would be a victory for terrorism. For NPR News, I'm Jerome SOCOLOVKSY in Bilbao, Spain.

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